The Rise of the Accordion

Respect grows for the much maligned squeezebox.

On Saturday, the first-ever meeting of the Philadelphia Accordion Club convened on the third floor of Liberty Bellows, an accordion shop and service center that opened earlier this year on 2nd Street in Queen Village. The excitement in the room was high, in part because just two days before, the New York Times had delivered an unexpected jolt of respect to the easily mocked world of the accordion: the newspaper declared that the instrument generally associated with polka was, well, “hip.”

And, indeed, looking around the cramped room inside Liberty Bellows, the crowd skewed young and hip. There was skinny-jeaned Rob (above), who lives in Bella Vista. “I’m pretty good,” explains Rob. “But I can really shred on harmonica.”

There was Dallas Vietty (below), part of the local gypsy jazz ensemble Hot Bijouxx. “Some people say that the accordion is a dead instrument,” says Vietty. “Well, as far as I know, there are no three-story guitar shops in Philadelphia.”

There were even a couple of shaggy-haired kids under 12 who had just completed the first ever accordion camp at Liberty Bellows, taught by Vietty. The oldest person on the staff of five at Liberty Bellows is its owner, Michael Bulboff, 32, a graduate of Princeton and Wharton.

“Each day really is busier than the one before it,” Bulboff says of his fledgling operation, which moved from a tiny Italian Market storefront in January. “People are seeing modern bands like Monsters & Men, Arcade Fire and Gogol Bordello incorporating accordions into their music, and I’m seeing customers with tattoos and piercings coming in to buy instruments. It’s really catching on.”

Oh, there were some older folks in the room, too, including Linda Reed, the president of the American Accordionists’ Association. She was there to push the 75th anniversary convention, coming to New York City in August.

Reed had been quoted in the Times piece. “I almost didn’t pick up the phone,” she told the room. “But then I saw that it was the New York Times. It was so nice that the reporter didn’t ask me one stupid question about accordions.” I decided not to ask Reed any questions. “This fantastic venue is something we haven’t seen in a long time,” Reed added. “This will become the next hub for accordions on the East Coast. It’s just beautiful.”

There are, of course, accordions everywhere you turn, ranging in price from $25 for kiddie models to $500 for a heavy entry-level mid-century accordion to $20,000 for one that you probably don’t need. To the rear of the first-floor showroom, there’s a workshop (seen below), where technicians repair and rebuild accordions. While I was there, one tech had an old accordion taken apart into so many pieces that it was hard to imagine that she’d be able to put it back together.

Parts of the shop are lined with posters of scantily-clad young women playing accordions. And if you want a copy of the 2013 Accordion Babes calendar and CD (yes, such a thing apparently exists), just look on the shelf holding the Woodstock Junior Accordion.

Other than talk of the upcoming convention and of the just-formed Ardmore Accordion Academy (it has one student), the big chatter at the meeting was the Times article. Some in the room wondered why it took the world so long to notice, while others were simply happy for the attention. “There was a time when playing the accordion was thoroughly uncool,” admits Bulboff. “I’m just glad that people are finally warming up to it.”